AUSTIN, Texas — Here in Travis County, judges and prosecutors are letting people out of jail to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
But the KVUE Defenders found out hundreds of those inmates are people charged with serious felony crimes.
"Our most immediate and urgent attention is being paid to trying to keep the virus out of the jail," Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said.
Moore explained why hundreds of people have been let out of the Travis County jail in the past month on personal recognizance bonds, better known as PR bonds. That means those inmates don’t have to pay a penny for their release, but promise to show up for court.
"The fewer people in the jail, the better chance we have of keeping the virus introduced," Moore said.
Travis County has been successful in reducing the jail population so far. On March 16, there were 2,164 inmates in the Travis County Jail. On Friday, the jail population is down to 1,603.
One explanation for that drop is an order Travis County judges passed at the end of March, granting automatic PR bonds to people charged with these felony crimes, with a few exceptions.
A few days later Gov. Greg Abbott made an announcement.
"Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the right solution. And doing so is now prohibited by law by this declaration," Abbott said during a news conference.
That executive order prohibits judges from granting PR bonds to people charged with felony crimes who have been previously convicted of a violent crime or who are arrested for a violent crime supported by probable cause.
The KVUE Defenders obtained Travis County jail records showing inmates with felony charges released on PR bonds over the past month. The records show 763 accused felons were released on bond between March 2 and April 6 – 597 of those inmates were released on PR bonds, meaning they didn’t have to pay any money to get out of jail.
The records also show many inmates released had multiple charges – 143 people are accused of committing more than one crime. Charges range from drug possession to aggravated assault, aggravated robbery, assaulting a peace officer, arson, human sex trafficking and more.
"Well, it’s absolutely a concern, and we are at the same time watching our crime rate and any reoffending by these individuals that are released," Moore said.
Moore said district judges have complied with the governor’s order since he made the announcement.
Brenda Kennedy, the presiding judge for Travis County Criminal District Courts, signed that initial order in Travis County.
Kennedy refused multiple requests for an interview but sent KVUE several emails addressing the bonds.
“If you have read and understand the provisions of the order, you would see the exceptions and circumstances that are within the order, which allows the judge to consider a personal bond if appropriate," Kennedy said in an email. "We are indeed following the order."
"If we have our officers injured or killed while these individuals are out, it’s on them," Ken Casaday said. "And they’re going to have to answer to the police officers and their families."
Casaday, president of Austin Police Association, agrees with Abbott. He’s worried letting people with felony charges out on PR bonds could put public and police safety at risk.
"This is absolutely negligent as far as we’re concerned," Casaday said. "These are the type of people that need to be locked up. These are the people that have stabbed each other, shot at individuals. It’s not acceptable."
But Moore disagrees. She said Travis County has historically let people with felony charges out on PR bonds, and the governor’s order goes against Travis County values.
"I do think there are cases where it does an injustice to keep that person in jail because of a history that could have been years and years ago," Moore said.
But Casaday is worried letting people with felony charges out of jail right now could put extra stress on law enforcement.
"There’s violent offenders, there’s people who committed aggravated assaults," Casaday said. "So these are people we’re going to have to deal with while we’re out here dealing with COVID-19. And all the officers standing behind me have masks and gloves on like I do. So this just one more worry."
So far, no inmates in Travis County have tested positive for COVID-19.
On Friday, a judge issued a temporary restraining order to block the enforcement of the governor's executive order.
This comes after the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas filed a lawsuit against the governor earlier this week. The group argues he overstepped his authority by restricting the release of inmates from county jails.
The governor's office has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the lawsuit.
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